Q&A with Noam Chomsky on U.S. Foreign Policy, Iran, Donald Trump & More

Web ExclusiveSeptember 22, 2015

Noam Chomsky

world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author and institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than half a century.

Noam Chomsky is a world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author and institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than half a century. Chomsky has written more than 100 books, including his latest, "Because We Say So," a collection of his monthly columns. After his speech on Saturday at The New School, he took questions from the audience.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NOAM CHOMSKY: So, "How has the United States supported radical Islam?"

As I mentioned, just as Britain did before it. I won’t comment on the British rule, but if you want to learn about it, there’s quite a good book on it by a very good British diplomatic historian, Mark Curtis, who discusses in detail, going back to the documentary record, how England, Britain supported radical Islam during its period of dominance. The U.S. has done it always. The major center of radical Islam, extremist radical Islam, is Saudi Arabia, unquestionably. They are the source of the Wahhabization of the region, which Patrick Cockburn points out is one of the major developments of the modern era. Who’s the main supporter of Saudi Arabia? You are. You know, that’s where your tax dollars go. It’s been for a long time. Right now tens of billions of dollars of arms being sent under Obama, but it goes way back.

In fact, the strong U.S. relation with Israel developed out of this. The United States and Israel had close relations, but not unusual, through the 1950s and early '60s. That changed in 1967. What happened in 1967? Israel performed a huge service to the United States and its Saudi Arabian ally. Saudi Arabia has been and remains the center of extremist, radical, fundamentalist Islam, with offshoots in the jihadi movements and so on, including ISIS. At the time, the center of secular nationalism was Nasser's Egypt, and there was a conflict between the two of them. In fact, they were at war. They were at war in the Yemen at the time. Israel administered a very serious blow to secular nationalism. It devastated the Egyptian army and Syria, and it saved Saudi Arabia and offered a great boon to the United States. And, in fact, if you check back, it’s at that time that the unusual—in fact, unique—relationship between Israel and the United States developed.

And in fact it continues after that. I could give more examples if there was time. But that has been a consistent pattern. There are a few exceptions here and there. So sometimes the United States has supported secular Islamic states. The most extreme and interesting example is Saddam Hussein, who was greatly loved by the Reagan administration and by the Bush I administration. I could give you the details, but they were so supportive of Saddam Hussein that he was even given a gift that otherwise only Israel has been granted, no other country. He was permitted to attack a U.S. naval vessel, killing a couple of dozen American sailors, and to get away with it with just a tap on the wrist. Israel had done the same thing in 1967. Saddam Hussein did it in 1987. And the friendship for Saddam Hussein was so enormous that he was granted that right. And that was a secular state. In fact, George Bush number one even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in nuclear weapons production. That’s a pretty supportive relationship. So there are cases where the United States has supported secular Islam, but typically it’s radical Islam that has been the beneficiary of U.S. support, like Britain before it.

"Why isn’t the United States doing more to help Syrian refugees?"

Well, that’s a question you should ask yourselves. Why aren’t we doing more? After all, we’re pretty munificent already. I think 2,000 have been accepted, after several years’ wait. But yes, that’s a very serious question. Can be generalized. There are other refugees. What about people fleeing from Honduras? The main—that’s the main source of what’s called the refugee crisis here. Most of them are coming from Honduras. Why? Well, something happened in Honduras a couple years ago. There was a military coup, which overthrew the democratic government. The United States was about the only country that gave its support. And the result of the military coup is a real horror story. It was bad enough before, but it’s become horrendous since. So people are fleeing, and therefore we have to build, you know, a mile-high wall on the Texas border or wherever it is. So, yeah, these are fair questions.

"The Obama doctrine vis-à-vis Syria?"

It’s a good question. Washington hasn’t a clue. It’s obvious. And it’s a little hard to fault them for that. It’s very hard to think of a constructive outcome to this utter disaster.

The United States has taken a somewhat hands-off position, except that it’s supporting its allies, who are very clear. As I mentioned, Turkey, a NATO ally, has been supporting the al-Qaeda-related jihadi front, namely the al-Nusra Front, a couple of others. The Gulf states, also U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, where they have been strong supporters of what’s now become the Islamic State—technically, Saudi Arabia, the government, no longer—claims no longer to support them directly, but surely did in the past, and funders from the Gulf—wealthy Gulf states are still presumably funding them, as they have in the past. It’s pretty open in the case of Qatar. So there’s—these are indirect U.S. policies.

The only conceivable hope for some resolution of this horrendous crisis, which is totally destroying the country, is the kind of negotiated settlement that was worked on by serious negotiators, like Lakhdar Brahimi, an international negotiator, very respectable, sensible. And the main idea, which—shared by any analyst with a grey cell functioning, is some kind of negotiated settlement which will involve the Assad government, like it or not, and involve the opposition elements, like it or not. There can’t be negotiations that don’t involve the parties that are fighting. That’s pretty obvious, just as South African negotiations had to involve the leadership of the apartheid state. There’s no other way. They can’t have other negotiations. It’s perfectly obvious that the Assad government is not going to enter into negotiations that are based on the condition that it commits suicide. If that’s the condition, they’re just going to keep destroying the country. That unfortunately is the—has been the U.S. position of the negotiations. U.S. and its allies have demanded that negotiations be based on the precondition that the Assad government will not survive. It’s a horrible government, and I’d like it not to survive, but that’s a prescription for destroying Syria, because it’s not going to enter into negotiations on those terms.

Right now, and in fact in the past, these have been proposals pretty much supported by the Russians. And, in fact, you may not have seen this, but for those of you who read the international press, British press, a couple of days ago there was a very interesting revelation that in 2012 the Russians had apparently presented a proposal for an interim regime which would not include Assad, and it was turned down by the United States and the West. That was reported in practically the entire British press—Guardian, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, across the spectrum. Didn’t appear in the United States for a while, but finally it did appear, not in print, as far as I can tell, but in an online edition of The Washington Post, where there’s an article of the usual type. It sort of mentions that this is rumored, but can’t take it seriously, and, you know, so on, probably didn’t mean it, and so on and so forth. Well, OK, you can draw your own conclusions.

But as far as—if you ask what the Obama doctrine is, it doesn’t exist. We saw the Obama doctrine a couple of weeks ago when the Pentagon sent in these 50 fighters, who had been trained for years, and they were immediately captured, killed, or just defected, by Turkey’s ally, the al-Nusra Front, as I mentioned, apparently with Turkish intelligence support. Now that’s the doctrine, is nothing, except to support the allies, which are in fact supporting jihadi forces. But what the doctrine ought to be, I think, is pretty clear. What the chances are for settlement of those terms is hard to say—not very high. But if you can think of an alternative, you should present it. No other alternative has been proposed.

"What do you think about the antics of Donald Trump, in tangent to your earlier idea about American exceptionalism?"

Well, actually, I think we should recognize that the other candidates are not that different. I mean, if you take a look at—just take a look at their views. You know, they tell you their views, and they’re astonishing. So just to keep to Iran, a couple of weeks ago, the two front-runners—they’re not the front-runners any longer—were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. And they differed on Iran. Walker said we have to bomb Iran; when he gets elected, they’re going to bomb Iran immediately, the day he’s elected. Bush was a little—you know, he’s more serious: He said he’s going to wait 'til the first Cabinet meeting, and then they'll bomb Iran. I mean, this is just off the spectrum of not only international opinion, but even relative sanity.

This is—I think Ornstein and Mann are correct: It’s a radical insurgency; it’s not a political party. You can tell that even by the votes. I mean, any issue of any complexity is going to have some diversity of opinion. But when you get a unanimous vote to kill the Iranian deal or the Affordable Care Act or whatever the next thing may be, you know you’re not dealing with a political party.

It’s an interesting question why that’s true. I think what’s actually happened is that during the whole so-called neoliberal period, last generation, both political parties have drifted to the right. Today’s Democrats are what used to be called moderate Republicans. The Republicans have just drifted off the spectrum. They’re so committed to extreme wealth and power that they cannot get votes, can’t get votes by presenting those positions. So what has happened is that they’ve mobilized sectors of the population that have been around for a long time. It is a pretty exceptional country in many ways. One is it’s extremely religious. It’s one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world. And by now, I suspect the majority of the base of the Republican Party is evangelical Christians, extremists, not—they’re a mixture, but these are the extremist ones, nativists who are afraid that, you know, "they are taking our white Anglo-Saxon country away from us," people who have to have guns when they go into Starbucks because, who knows, they might get killed by an Islamic terrorist and so on. I mean, all of that is part of the country, and it goes back to colonial days. There are real roots to it. But these have not been an organized political force in the past. They are now. That’s the base of the Republican Party. And you see it in the primaries. So, yeah, Trump is maybe comic relief, but it’s just a—it’s not that different from the mainstream, which I think is more important.

"U.S. exceptionalism has existed since the"—what’s that?


NOAM CHOMSKY: "... since the doctrine of manifest destiny in the 18th"—actually 19th—"century. What has changed?"

Well, what’s changed is the capacity to implement the doctrines. So take, say, the Monroe Doctrine, 1823. The Monroe Doctrine essentially declared that the United States must rule the hemisphere. It didn’t say it in those words, but that’s what it amounted to. And it was the intellectual father of the Monroe Doctrine, it was John Quincy Adams, who was also the intellectual author of manifest destiny. Well, there was a problem. This was the 1820s. There was a deterrent. The deterrent was Britain. Britain was the hated enemy. They were the big military power, and they prevented the United States from achieving its first foreign policy goal. By "foreign," I mean outside the national territory. That’s also aggression, but it’s not called aggression, but conquest of the national territory, what’s now the national territory. Of course, there was a war, against the indigenous population, who were exterminated and expelled. But the first so-called foreign goal was to take over Cuba. Goes back to the 1820s. Couldn’t do it. British navy was in the way.

John Quincy Adams, who was an astute ground strategist, pointed out to his colleagues that we just have to wait. He said, "Sooner or later, U.S. power will increase, British power will decline. And," as he put it, "Cuba will fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, just the way an apple falls from the tree," which indeed happened. Over the 19th century, U.S. power increased, British power declined. The U.S. was able to take further steps in the Western Hemisphere. And in 1898, in fact, it was able to conquer Cuba. That’s—if you go to school in the United States, you learn that the United States liberated Cuba in 1898. In fact, the U.S. invaded to prevent Cuba from liberating itself from Spain, which is what happened. And since—after that, it just became a virtual colony, until liberation finally in 1959, and ever since then the United States has been trying to reverse it.

And the same is true generally. The United States did not—it was a—it may have been—it was probably the richest country in the world back in the early 19th century, but not the most powerful country. Britain was the most powerful. France was a powerful country. And that changed over the years, especially with the First World War and finally with the Second World War. So, exceptionalism has greatly expanded as power expanded. And I say again that this exceptionalism was also true of other great powers during their day of imperial power and domination.

"World leaders will meet in New York City next week for a new set of global anti-poverty targets, sustainable development goals. Do you think these targets are sufficient?"

That has an easy answer: two letters. And furthermore, nothing will be achieved. That’s pretty safe to say.

"Can you comment on the important of WikiLeaks cables?"

Now, they’ve been really revealing. You learn a lot from them. Some of them are really interesting, including ones that aren’t discussed much. I mean, most of them you’ve seen. But, for example, one of the WikiLeaks—one interesting question that should be on everybody’s mind is: What is the basis for the extraordinary relationship between the United States and Israel? There are a lot of reasons for it, but one interesting aspect was revealed by a WikiLeaks cable, which I think wasn’t reported.

One of the cables listed—of the leaks, listed a document, an internal U.S. document, Pentagon document, which listed the top strategic priorities of the United States, regions in the world that were so important that we had to protect them at all costs. There were maybe—I forget how many, a dozen or so. One of them was right outside Haifa, Rafael military industries, major military industry. That’s one of the main places where drone technology has been developed. The links between U.S. and Israeli high-tech military industry are extremely close. In fact, in this case, Rafael, the biggest industry, our ties are so close that Rafael actually moved its management headquarters to Washington, where the money is.

Well, what that tells you, that gives an interesting insight into the nature of the relationship. Israel is now—does play a major role—small country, but good high-tech industry, and it plays a major role in repression and aggression. It’s developed—the Israeli arms fairs, where they sell their arms, they advertise, correctly, that they have developed advanced means of repression and control, and that the arms that they’re displaying are battlefield-tested, namely against the Palestinians. So they’ve refined the techniques of control. And they contribute to that all over the place—in Central America, even in the United States. They’re providing advice on how to bar Honduran immigrants, say, from coming to the United States. They help train police and so on, many examples.

Well, that’s only one case, but there have been many other cases of the WikiLeaks materials. It’s really worth reading through them, not just the ones that, you know, do get reported, but many other ones. There’s actually a volume that just came out on WikiLeaks, which is important reading.

"Do you think that U.N. foreign policy is—U.S. foreign policy, sorry, is driven exclusively by economic interests? What other factors influence U.S. foreign policy, and to what extent?"

That’s quite an interesting question. It’s certainly not driven entirely by economic interests. In fact, there are very striking cases. Usually, by and large, the U.S. foreign policy, like other major states, is driven by the dominant domestic forces. That’s kind of natural. And the dominant domestic forces are, of course, the corporate sector. That’s not in question. So, by and large, foreign policy is driven by their interests. And what I—the Clinton Doctrine, which I quoted, is an obvious case, but there are plenty of others. However, there are exceptions, and there are very interesting ones.

Actually, Iran is an exception, quite an interesting one. And that goes back to the first U.S. serious involvement with Iran. Iran was a kind of a British virtual colony. The British were involved in preventing Iran from developing, getting—either economically or politically. But that changed in 1953, when Britain was too weak to overthrow the parliamentary regime, and the U.S. took over and carried out—basically, carried out the coup that installed the Shah. Something quite interesting happened at that time. The United States government wanted U.S. energy corporations to take over 40 percent of the British concession. It was a British—the British were taking Iranian oil. But the Eisenhower administration wanted U.S. energy corporations to take 40 percent of it. That’s an economic interest. They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to for good reasons. It was much cheaper then to get oil from Saudi Arabia, so that just for straight business reasons they didn’t want to have to go to Iran. And furthermore, they were concerned that that might harm their relations with the Saudi dictators, Saudi family that essentially owns and runs the country, and they didn’t want to bother with that. The U.S. government actually forced them, forced the oil companies, to take a 40 percent concession. The Eisenhower administration threatened them with antitrust suits and other threats, if they didn’t do it. So, of course, they backed down and did it. That’s pretty unusual.

And I think it’s happening now, too. We don’t have documents from the present period. You know, you get documents from earlier periods. But you can be pretty confident that the U.S. energy corporations would be delighted to break into the Iranian market. They don’t like the idea every other—just about every other major country is sending, you know, business delegations, investors and others to try to profit from the opening of Iran, which they support, and the U.S. energy corporations and other U.S. businesses are blocked by state power. And you can be sure that they don’t like it. If we had access to their internal deliberations, I’m sure it would say that. Well, that’s a case where state power, in this case, overwhelms even economic interests. Iran has to be punished. Iran committed a serious crime: They disobeyed orders. And you don’t disobey orders. One of the major doctrines of international affairs, which doesn’t appear in the literature, is the Mafia doctrine. International affairs are run like the—very much like the Mafia. The godfather does not tolerate disobedience. It’s much too dangerous. So, if some small storekeeper somewhere, say, doesn’t pay protection money, the don doesn’t accept it. You send their goons to beat him to a pulp, even if you don’t need the money, because others might get the idea, then things might start to erode. That is a dominant principle of international affairs. In fact, that was the reason for the 1953 coup, when you look back. And it’s also the reason why—for U.S. hostility to Iran, which is extreme. I mentioned the support for Saddam Hussein. That was an attack on Iran, and a serious one. But they defied orders. They overthrew a U.S.-imposed tyrant. They thumbed their nose at the United States. And you don’t get away with that.

Actually, Cuba is very similar, since Cuba is extremely—the hostility to Cuba is quite interesting. I mean, for decades, ever since polls were taken, the majority of the U.S. population has been in favor of normalization of relations. OK, it’s normal to disregard the population in a democracy—they don’t count. But what is unusual in this case is that major sectors of U.S. economic power have been in favor of normalization, big sectors—pharmaceuticals, energy industries, agribusiness. They’ve all wanted to get into the Cuban market. And the state has blocked it, which is quite unusual. And there’s another case where state power has overwhelmed even the power of its major domestic sources. In fact, these are two quite striking examples. And it’s the same thing. And in the case of Cuba, we know it. If you go back to the Kennedy administration, you know, when the war against Cuba really took off, it was very explicit. The State Department said we can’t tolerate what they called successful defiance of U.S. policies, that go back to the Monroe Doctrine. Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Latin American adviser, reported to him the report of his Latin American mission, said the problem is the Castro idea of taking matters into your own hands, which appeals to others in the hemisphere where people suffer similar repression, and you can’t let that idea spread. It’s the Mafia doctrine again, powerful enough to sharply conflict with economic interests. So there are cases, but they’re rare. And they’re illuminating.

ANTHONY ARNOVE: I think this has to be the last one. We got all of these, but time’s running out.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Oh, OK. "What is intelligence?"

Well, it’s something that’s lacking in certain places. Let’s put it like that. Thanks.

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